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The Champion Taco-Eating Pit Bull

My neighbor Jose had just adopted a special pit bull from the local rescue shelter. It had been the faithful companion for five years of Jose’s elderly friend who had passed away a few months earlier. Because pit bulls have a bad rap, nobody wanted the dog, so the shelter planned to put it to sleep. When my neighbor learned that his friend’s faithful companion was about to be killed, he immediately adopted the dog. I don’t know about cats having nine lives, but that dog definitely got a second life.

That dog went everywhere with Jose. The dog’s name was Lucky, but Jose made a point of calling him something like “Lu-key.” Jose even got that large pooch service-dog certified, which meant he could take that dog into the supermarkets and even into the county fair.

Last July, I was assigned to judge the taco eating contest. A few months later the county fair started. Somehow Jose managed to get Lucky into the fair on my judgment day. According to him, the ticket office at first refused to let Lucky the service dog go in, because of all the other animals there. So Jose was sent to the exhibitor’s entrance, where the fair’s president was. After the president argued with Jose a bit, he was left at the gate with Lucky while the fair officials argued about what to do. During that time, exhibitors with other dogs, cats, pigs, and birds of all kinds, came into the fair through that same gate. Lucky looked at those other animals but did not budge from Jose’s side. Not a sound came from him, though other animals sometimes made a racket. The president noticed that and then decided to let Jose and Lucky conditionally come in; Lucky was in no way to disturb the other animals, children, or people.

A local guy named Walt came to the taco eating contest as a participant, not letting his wife know. We had TV-like tables set up with fifteen Mama Juanita’s Taqueria soft-shelled chicken tacos on each one, the best tacos for hundreds of miles. The contestant who at them the fastest won the contest. It happened that Jose and Lucky were the closest to Walt’s table.

Well, no sooner had I blown the start whistle than Walt’s wife screamed out his name, “Walter Higgins! Get over here!” At that shout, he jumped up and bumped over his table filled with tacos, in front of Lucky. Walt then bolted away from that area as fast as a rooster with its tail feathers aflame. Well, Lucky apparently felt lucky, so he jumped the few feet needed to get at all those tacos on the ground in front of him and started gobbling them down. It wasn’t long before all the contest spectators were watching Lucky, some aiming their Instagram-linked iPhone cameras at him. It was only later we discovered that CNN also had a cameraman at that event. Not only did Lucky eat all the tacos, but he was also the first to finish them as well!

Since the top two human taco eating contest champions were state-level champs, it didn’t take the local folk much time to declare, over the protest of those two guys, Lucky the 2015 taco eating contest winner. CNN national news and its website showed scenes of Lucky gobbling up the last of the tacos. The fair’s Facebook page ended up with the greatest number of views in local history. The social media sensation Lucky would become the “picture boy” for the next state fair.

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Amazing

AI, Childhood Images and a Holocaust Survivor Finding Her History Again

Kelly Taylor

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The first half the 20th century was not a good one for Blanche Fixler. As a Jew, she was a target for the Nazis, who succeeded in killing at least 6 million of her countrymen. They were so close to Fixler, at one point she was hiding underneath a bed trying not to breathe. Had she made a noise, the Nazi troops searching the room she was in would have grabbed her in an instant. Through luck, fear, feistiness and perseverance, Fixler survived the Holocaust.

Now, almost some 80 years later, Blanche Fixler is relieving history thanks to artificial intelligence, or AI. A program written by Daniel Pratt, also known as a engineer at Google, has become extremely effective at matching people’s faces to their parts in history. In fact, it was so effective, it had a direct impact on Fixler; the software found her face in a historical image from the war period that no one previously knew was Blanche at all. She was just another face of thousands lost until she wasn’t.

Dubbed “Numbers to Names,” Pratt’s program relies on the technology of facial recognition to do its work. While a person’s appearance might change over time, their facial structure doesn’t. And that makes for a comparable identification when the details are run through the thousands of calculations per second via the software.

In some respects, the software works with the logic of connecting dots. As it makes connections, it builds on that library and makes more connections. Many photos may have one or even two connections, but they still have five or a dozen more than are unknown. By constantly running and making new connections, the software persistently whittles away at the challenge. As it turned out, one of those successes was Blanche Fixler.

Blanche Fixler today is at the ripe age of 86. She is a world away from Germany and Poland and the nightmare she lived through, ensconced in the urban distance of New York. However, thanks to Pratt’s program, Fixler has now been identified as a child in two historical photos. Pratt’s software did the hard work and connected the dots.

Among the many who were grabbed, rounded up and killed in Poland, Fixler’s entire family were victims of the Nazis. At the time, Blanche’s name was Bronia to her family, but that was left in the past as she survived the war. Her luck was made possible by an aunt who hid Fixler from the soldiers regularly looking for Jews in hiding. When Fixler saw the photos that had her in them, she also identified her aunt as well as other relatives. That in turn creates more connections that Pratt and those using the software can benefit from in their ongoing work of identification.

The work has been partnered with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and it continues to be worked on to provide closure and dignity for the thousands of families related to the victims of the Holocaust. By personalizing the faces of the 6 million, they gain a confirmed history versus being nameless and unknown among the masses lost.

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Amazing

This Blind Skateboarder Is Amazing

Kevin Wells

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Blind people can do a lot of things others don’t assume are possible without basic vision. However, skateboarding is definitely not one of them, right? Well, according to Dan Mancina, blind people can skateboard as well.

Now, while there definitely won’t be a sudden wave of thousands of blind skateboarders hitting halfpipes and the streets anytime soon, Dan Mancina is definitely pushing boundaries and the edge of envelopes. And it’s not just him telling tales; Macina’s videos are so shocking and motivating, he has hundreds of thousands of people clicking and watching online as well. Whether it’s Instagram, YouTube or similar social media, Mancina is clearly not just skateboarding, he’s also doing complicated tricks as well.

The Daredevil on wheels does use a cane as he maneuvers around his cement obstacles, and he easily manages to stay on his board and keep his balance as well. He did have one slight advantage over other blind people as well. Mancina wasn’t always blind. Instead, he gradually lost his eyesight due to a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. By Mancina’s mid-twenties, the neurodegenerative disease was taking its toll, and he lost the ability to function daily in terms of regular vision. It took away his ability to drive as well as even ride a bike down the street.

Like many who lose sight after seeing, the first few months are a ball of frustration, depression and loneliness. Mancina could even go for a walk outside without help, not knowing where he would step or what he would bump into. The first years traveled the same path as many who go blind, going through the basics of motion and life again to see what was actually possible.

Then he started skateboarding. The skateboard was not foreign to Mancina. He first rode a deck at the beginning of his teenage years, tearing down the street at 13. It was a bit of a shock to him as well. It took some years’ time to get outside, go fishing, walk without help and generally navigate again. Skateboarding was definitely not the first thing Mancina was itching to do, being verifiably blind. However, when he finally just stood on the board again, it felt familiar. In fact, it gave Mancina a sense of individual freedom again, despite his blindness.

Today, Mancina wants to spearhead a special needs skateboard park with specific designs to help people “see” their surroundings and adapt to them. More importantly, however, and despite his current fund-raising project, Mancina is clearly showing people those with limitations are not down for the count by any means. They just need to learn how to adapt to grow and function well again.

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Missing Hiker Spotted By Train Passenger

Kevin Wells

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Day Trip Turns Into Two-Day Trip

A young woman hiking in Colorado found herself completely unprepared when she fell down a 90-foot cliff, becoming badly injured. A New Mexico native, the hiker left the trail in search of better photo opportunities. While trying to take pictures of the beautiful scenery, she lost her footing and could not prevent her accident. Her injuries included a broken leg and possible concussion, and she may have been unconscious for several hours. Because she only planned to be out during the day, the hiker only had enough supplies to last for a short time. Her clothes were suitable for a day trip, but not warm enough for nights in the area.

Injured Hiker Starts by Helping Herself

In her 20s, the hiker survived for two days with her injuries, but it is unknown how much longer she could have gone on without food, water, or medical aid. Because of her will to live, she managed to crawl to an area where she was more likely to be visible to passing travelers. The Animas River was cold and moving quickly, but the injured hiker managed to make it close to the riverbank. On the other side of the river, she could hear and see the train passing.

Train Passenger Becomes Unlikely Hero

Luckily for the injured hiker, at least one of the passing trains was a passenger train. One of the passengers was enjoying the view through the area and paying attention to the landscape, probably hoping for interesting sights and animal spotting. There is no doubt that she was surprised to see a human hand waving for help, but she did what all heroes do and acted immediately. The woman who spotted the injured hiker immediately notified the train officials so that they could notify the train company and find a train that could stop and see what was going on with the person waving.

Qualified Heroes

The engineer and fireman on the next train were a married couple who knew how to help injured people in emergencies. Nick and Kylah Breeden were on the next passing train, and they willingly stopped to help. Over 300 passengers waited while the couple checked out the situation, and Kylah stayed behind when it became clear that the hiker could not be transported across the river without extra help.

Kylah is a trained paramedic and she stayed with the hiker while waiting for help. The hiker needed to be transported across the river on a backboard because of her injuries. Then a gurney took her to a waiting helecopter.

Willing Heroes

If not for the actions of all those people, the hiker would doubtless have stayed alone without help. Many of the people who helped did so as part of their jobs, but they went above and beyond, such as when Kylah Breeden stayed overnight with the hiker while waiting for help. But none of it would have been possible if the train passenger simply wanting to enjoy the scenery didn’t notice and immediately find help.

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Doing a Critical Job Even When Pregnant

Kevin Wells

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Firefighters make it their life mission to save people and property. So, it’s fairly challenging for them to turn off that mentality, even when they know they should be off the clock. That was the case for one Maryland fire ground pounder who has been a firefighter much of her adult life.

At 30, Megan Warfield was dealing with contractions and expecting to have a baby in a matter of hours or a day. However, working through the sensations while being driven as a passenger, she ended up in a multiple car accident. Warfield was fine, a fender-bender at most for the vehicle she was in. So, her firefighter training kicked in, and she began helping direct traffic away from the accident itself. However, as Warfield surveyed the situation, she realized someone was trapped inside one of the cars turned upside down by the event.

Not even thinking about herself or the contractions, Warfield wiggled into the overturned car to stabilize the victim and prevent the person from getting injured further. Knowing it’s a common situation for folks to go into shock, get dropped and land on their head and knock or similar, stabilization was key in the first moments of an accident to protect the victim. As regular paramedics flooded in minutes later and took over, Warfield herself realized she needed to get to a hospital as well, just in case something happened to her baby from the accident. As it turned out, after being admitted, the hospital staff confirmed she was fully in labor and her baby was out of position thanks to the accident motion.

Being sideways versus upside down is a serious issue, but Warfield hadn’t even noticed being entirely in firefighter mode during the event. So, no surprise, when things settled the cramps really started kicking in, and she knew her baby was on the way. Less than a day later, Warfield was a new mom, giving birth to her third child on October 4. With a brand-new daughter, Charlotte, Warfield finally relented and completely gave in to relaxing and staying off the clock for a while as a firefighter.

The accident was no small one either. A total of six people were moved by ambulance to local hospitals, and everyone fully recovered after the fact. Warfield’s stations gave big kudos, not just for the service the pregnant firefighter provided at the scene, but congratulations on her new child as well. The whole story and details got repeated airtime on her fire department’s social media account as well as the local news circuit as well. Sure enough, the story got picked up nationally, and the TODAY show interviewed Warfield as well afterwards.

It’s not surprising Warfield jumped into the fray. She had been put on light duty due to her pregnancy and had spent most of her working days up to the day of delivery managing administrative functions for her fire department and related paperwork. She herself admits she was a bit stir-crazy and wanted to get back on the engine fire line.

Now that Charlotte is taken care of and growing, it won’t be surprising to see Warfield out at vehicle accidents and local fires again doing what she does best as a firefighter.

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Amazing

Ukrainian Lion Rescue by the Dozen

Kevin Wells

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War comes with a lot of different costs, and one that gets less fanfare and almost becomes invisible is what happens to animals in zoos affected by conflicts. Some of the more recent examples have been seen in Iraq, but the latest case is now in Ukraine.

Odessa is a well-known coastal city, and it is also home to the Bio Park Zoo. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian conflict and Russian invasion has made it literally impossible to operate the local zoo facility safely, and an entire pride of lions has had to be moved as a result. The large felines were quickly moved out of the conflict zone via convoy early on and were temporarily being housed in Romania back in May. Unfortunately, conditions have made it impossible to return to their home zoo, and now that lions have been relocated to the U.S. after a significant migration effort.

Granted an emergency permit, almost a dozen lions were granted approval to be moved into the U.S., specifically to an animal sanctuary in Colorado. The Wild Animal Refuge engaged and agreed to take seven adults and two cubs, while the remainder were moved to South Africa, both being distant locations from the conflict that caused their move in the first place. The combination has proven to be the largest transport of a group of lions in history, an unfortunately additional bookmark in the history books caused by war.

The above said, and despite the cause, the big win is that the lions are safe and out of harm’s way now, which has not always been the case for other zoo animals caught in conflict zones. Interestingly, a modern age problem, zoo animals and similar in earlier decades were considered simply victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth, such situations ended tragically with the zoo animals having to be put down versus risk them getting loose or killed by stray artillery and fire. However, today, a lot more can be done, literally moving the animals in a day halfway around the world.

The effort takes a tremendous amount of cooperation from different groups, governments, agencies and companies, but the payoff is tremendous for the animals involved, as well as the bigger goal of reducing the damage of war and secondary costs. Not everything can be saved, but when folks can come together and pull off a project like this for the Ukrainian lions saved, it gives everyone else hope for better days.

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